Farmer's Cards | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Farmer's Cards 

Kids from all over the midwest wind up in Lincoln Park after college. And wind up in bars playing euchre.

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When euchre night at McGee's fell on the same night as the climactic episode of Joe Millionaire, some cardplayers were torn.

"I lack strategy," lamented one young woman, rushing to her table before the forfeit deadline. "I can't multitask. They play the show at the same time." McGee's has more televisions than Best Buy--there's a plasma screen in every booth--but at Table 12, Ryan wasn't distracted. He and his partner Bill, buddies from Notre Dame, never paid attention to Joe Millionaire. That's why they were in eighth place in the 74-team league. Ryan shuffled a deck of Stud brand playing cards.

"I played a little bit in high school," he said. "But it seems like at every college in the midwest people play euchre. On a Tuesday night in February, what else are you going to do in South Bend?"

Or West Lafayette. Or Columbus. Or Evanston. When Big Ten students run out their four years of eligibility but want to keep partying, they move to Lincoln Park, where the taverns offer a postgraduate Elysium of $2 Bud Light specials, modern rock cover bands, and card parties. McGee's is one of four neighborhood bars with a euchre night. Durkin's, the Purdue bar on Diversey, plays on Tuesdays. Jack Sullivan's, for the Ohio State grad, has euchre every Wednesday. And Duffy's--for those who can't let go of Ann Arbor--just started a league on Mondays, the same night as McGee's.

"I was one of many who learned in college," said Nancy (Northwestern '85), who, along with her friend Sara (Hope '95), would be playing Bill and Ryan that night. "I had a friend who played euchre at the fraternity where we were little sisters, and the guys would insist on playing strip euchre. We always won. The guys would end up naked."

Euchre is a partnered bidding game similar to bridge, but it's bridge for those nights when you don't feel like dealing with all 52 cards. Players throw out everything but the nines, the tens, the aces, and the face cards, making the game fast and easy to follow--and less than half a deck leaves more than half of your brain free for such pursuits as beer, TV, and hooking up. Two pairs of players (at McGee's, preferably of the opposite sex) are dealt five cards apiece. After someone calls the trump suit, the cards skid across the table until one team wins three tricks.

The game was brought to America from Germany, settled in the midwest, and, like the complacent Teutonic farmers who popularized it, never traveled much outside the region. Its slang is rustic: bad cards are a "farmer's hand." The highest card, the jack of trump, is the "right bower." A team one point from victory is "in the barn" (and sometimes announces it by mooing).

Nancy and Sara hung their heavy coats on hooks screwed into the varnished wall. Bill's girlfriend kissed his cheek and hurried away. He'd met Joelle playing euchre, and she had her own game waiting. Ryan dealt, working around a tabletop skyline of beer bottles and pint glasses. On the TV screen above his head, Evan, the hero of Joe Millionaire, agonized over whether to invite brunet Zora or blond Sarah to share his life as a bulldozer driver.

"I watched one show of this," said Ryan, a bearded computer engineer. "They played it at the Brew & View. Oh, wait, that was The Bachelorette. I haven't seen this one."

Bidding hearts, Ryan and Bill took three of the five tricks, winning the round. Bill celebrated by interlacing his fingers, pointing the thumbs downward, and thrusting his palms across the table.

"Milk me!" he commanded.

Ryan yanked Bill's thumbs. It was a farm belt high five.

"We learned that from a brother and sister the first week we played here," Ryan explained. "They made cow udders. I was kind of shocked by that."

Bill and Ryan were first to score ten points, giving them a one-nil lead in the best-of-five series. (Most hands are one pointers, but teams net two points for sweeping the tricks, or for a "euchre"--winning when the opposition has called trump.) In the second set they fell behind, so Ryan made a bold move. He decided to "go it alone"--to play without his partner; winning every trick with no help is worth four points. Ryan lost.

At that moment the bar was roiled by murmurs. A man in a black sweater scurried to a television. He leaned on the volume, and a pink bar raced across the screen beneath Evan's earnest stoner mug.

"Shhh!"

McGee's brick-walled back rooms were crowded with 150 bibulous, flirtatious, opinionated cardplayers, but they all settled into silence. It was a reverent moment, like just before a field goal attempt in the last seconds of a deadlocked Rose Bowl. Even the guys singing Kylie Minogue songs at Table 37 shut up.

"They actually put the volume on for this!" Nancy cackled, dipping into a bowl of Irish nachos--waffle fries sunk in guacamole, chili, and nacho cheese.

"Spit it out!" a woman screamed.

On TV, Evan looked soulfully at Zora: "It might come as a shock," he told her. "I did not inherit $50 million. I'm a heavy-equipment operator."

Sara hooted. "He's just a guy in a cheap sweater now."

"I just don't understand the women who would sign up for this show," said Nancy.

"Fifty million." Ryan raised his eyebrows.

"I'd like to believe I do not know anyone who would fall for that premise," Nancy concluded.

"You should go in the other room," Bill said. "It's deathly quiet in there."

Bill didn't have much to say about Joe Millionaire. He's renowned for his concentration. ("He's got, like, an eidetic memory," Ryan said admiringly.) Bill remembers every card that falls on the table, so he always knows exactly what to play. While at Notre Dame a dozen years ago, he could read a chemistry book once and ace the test. That's why he is now an anesthesiologist--and a euchre champ.

The card playing resumed. The TV talk continued. Seven years ago, when Nancy joined this league, everyone followed Melrose Place. In the autumn, the men were distracted by Monday Night Football.

"Since the reality TV craze, that's added a new dimension," Ryan said. "That's something new for this league: Joe Millionaire."

When the game stopped, for another Joe Millionaire moment, Bill and Ryan led two sets to one and Evan was standing in a candlelit ballroom, forcing a ring onto Zora's hand. The butler presented the couple with a $1 million check. Nancy didn't miss the fright in Zora's clenched camera smile.

"Now she looks like, 'I'm gonna be stuck with this guy. He looks like such an idiot.'"

The result of that night's match may soon be forgotten, perhaps even sooner than Joe Millionaire. (Bill and Ryan won, three sets to two, boosting themselves to seventh place.) The seven-week winter season ended the following Monday, on the same night as Joe Millionaire: The Aftermath. All the TVs were tuned to basketball.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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